It’s not easy to pinpoint specifically where they come from , but I believe that every artist, and by association every photographer, has one or perhaps two inescapable recurring themes – subjects which they’re relentlessly drawn to rendering without tire. They may be moods, conditions, specific colours, poses, geometric arrangements or practically anything whether capable or not of definition and description.
Recurring themes ought not to be confused with the photographer’s/artist’s style; while the theme is what the photographer is drawn to rendering, the style is the realization of how he has chosen to render it – his choice of composition, colour vs back & white, contrast etc. Recurring themes ought also not to be confused with the choice of genre within which the photographer works. A photographer specialising in street photography for instance may find that he’s drawn most easily and naturally to shooting anachronisms. He is therefore a street photographer by choice, but does not have a choice in whether or not he shoots the old man with vintage garb and a wooden tobacco-pipe amidst glass buildings staring quizzically at his iPhone screen because once his eyes register the scene his brain executes a sequence of sub-conscious protocols which forces him to capture it. Of course this is an extreme and hypothetical example meant to be considered for illustration purposes only.
Recurring or persistent themes are essentially proclivities, which if well understood, may ultimately hold the key to either, even deeper specialization or, consistency and progression in our craft. And this is so because proclivities can be good things or bad things. Photographic proclivities can be good when they force us to develop creative perspectives on an over-explored subject. Sticking with the example above, if I were victim of a compulsion towards shooting anachronisms; how many different ways can this be shot? A full visual exploration of this theme should ultimately push us beyond mere repetition and ultimately drive us to the production of a consistently themed exploration of anachronisms. Mere repetition however, is the bad side of recurring themes; repetition is the enemy of progression, one of them at least. Drawing on the anachronisms example yet again, if we constantly find ourselves searching the streets for old men with iPhones then all we end up with is a series of images with much length and no depth.
Our personal recurring themes can also be omens that this particular proclivity is to us, something of a photographic comfort zone we subconsciously leap into just to escape a conscience which can condemn us of not shooting, drawing or painting enough. Every now and then that voice comes up nagging in our heads “you should be out shooting”. We eventually succumb, head out on the streets and shoot the same dreary image of, you guessed it, old man with an iPhone. We’ve managed to silence the nag by doing the easiest possible thing. Comfort zones in any profession or craft are dangerous places; they’re where skills go to die. If an introspection of your photographic proclivities ultimately hint that this is persistent because it’s a comfort zone then you need to take immediate and drastic actions.
Anyone, whether one blessed with a specific talent or one who undertakes to learn a skill/craft, owes it to themselves to explore and develop that craft to its fullest potential. Taking the time to sit back and examine our deeply personal persistent themes should also reveal how well we’re doing with that mandate. Generally, a thorough examination of our proclivities is only possible when we have a sufficiently large body of work through which we can rummage to see which images keep on popping up. Consider this a mile-marker or a halfway point; once we get there and we’ve made some sense of our own personal recurring themes the only place left to go is forward.
I decided to write this essay after recently spending a substantial amount of time combing through the thousands of images in my archives. Finding one very specific aesthetic recurring more than any other – I’ve dubbed it Circles in the Sky – prodded the curiousity as to why this was so. I’m still debating which category this theme falls into, whether good or bad. But, thinking through the matter now, at least I know what needs to be done once I objectively classify this proclivity.
Disclaimer: I hold no personal ridicule for old men with iPhones. I’m positive that the majority of them can use a smartphone much better than me. As mentioned, this scene was strictly for illustration purposes.